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Girl Last Seen
A gripping psychological thriller with a shocking twist
By Nina Laurin
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Two missing girls. Thirteen years apart.
Olivia Shaw has been missing since last Tuesday. She was last seen outside the entrance of her elementary school in Hunts Point wearing a white spring jacket, blue jeans, and pink boots.
I force myself to look at the face in the photo, into her slightly smudged features, and I can’t bring myself to move. Olivia Shaw could be my mirror image, rewound to thirteen years ago.
If you have any knowledge of Olivia Shaw’s whereabouts or any relevant information, please contact…
I’ve spent a long time peering into the faces of girls on missing posters, wondering which one replaced me in that basement. But they were never quite the right age, the right look, the right circumstances. Until Olivia Shaw, missing for one week tomorrow.
Whoever stole me was never found. But since I was taken, there hasn’t been another girl.
And now there is.
The night is so bright it hurts her eyes. She’s used to the dark ceiling, always unchanging and so low she could barely stand up straight, so the night sky is blinding. She’s used to the tomb-like silence of the basement, and all the soft sounds of the night assault her eardrums, set her teeth on edge. She fights the urge to shut her eyelids and press her hands over her ears. She stumbles on along the edge of the road, even though tiny bits of gravel sink into the soles of her feet with every step.
She’s no longer used to walking. Her weakened muscles tremble with the effort of every step. Every gust of wind chills the scalded skin of her exposed arms and legs, and when a big icy drop lands in the middle of her forehead, she jumps. Other drops pitter-patter all around her as the air grows colder and damper; she shivers. Rain, she remembers, straining to retrieve the word from the foggy recesses of her memory. This is rain. It’s nothing to be afraid of, just water from the sky.
The memory of buckets of water being dumped over her head, flooding her nose and mouth as she tries to scream, jolts her nerve endings. As the rain turns from a drizzle to one endless sheet of icy water, her legs buckle. She barely feels the stab of gravel on her knees. She has time to break her fall with her outstretched hands, and she stares at them, bewildered. There’s no rope, no chain. Instead, thick bands of scars circle her wrists, still crusted with scabs in some places.
In a stupor, she can’t look away from them.
Her hands. Her hands are free.
A whimper escapes from her, lost in the hiss of water on pavement. Even when she hears the car through the noise of the rain, even when the headlights blind her and when the car pulls over and stops next to her, she can’t bring herself to look away from her hands.
She has no more strength to fight.
Fighting never did her any good anyway.
Steps crunch across the gravel. Someone leans over her, momentarily shielding her from the downpour. “Girl. Are you all right?”
She wishes she could answer, but she’s not sure she has a voice anymore. Maybe it died months ago and she never knew. She’d like to answer, but she’s afraid of finding out.
“How did you get out here?”
She hears more steps and another voice. “Sean, dammit. Look at her.”
“Yeah, I see.”
“No, I mean look at her.” A string of curse words. “I’m calling for backup.”
“We should bring her into the car,” says the first voice. It’s different from the other one. Smoother. Soothing. Filled with an emotion she thought she had forgotten a long time ago.
“No,” says the other one. “Don’t touch her. I’m calling an ambulance.”
“Are you out of your mind? It’s pouring. Her teeth are clattering. I’m going to get her into the car, and then you can call a dozen ambulances if you want.”
“Protocol, Sean,” the other voice says. He sounds angry, and a rush of terror makes her curl in on herself, pressing her forehead into her knees. It never helped, but for some reason, she keeps doing it.
“Fuck protocol,” the first voice snaps back. “Look at her, dammit. She has no shoes. She’s bleeding.”
Finally, she raises her head just a little and squints. Red and blue lights are flashing through the curtain of rain. Red, blue, red, blue, red, blue. It’s beautiful, she thinks. It’s been a while since she’s seen that much color. It makes her want to cry, although it could just be rain getting into her eyes.
She tries to remember what a white-and-blue car with red and blue lights means but can’t.
There’s a rustle, and someone kneels next to her. She quickly presses her forehead back into her knees.
“Sweetheart,” says the voice. It’s the first voice, the good voice. “Sweetheart, are you all right?”
“Sean,” barks the bad voice in the background.
“Fuck off, Murphy. She’s just a little girl.”
She looks up, blinks away the rain, and sees him for the first time, only for a second before rainwater floods her vision. He has wide, dark, almond-shaped eyes, and they’re filled with concern and worry and sadness.
And something inside her just tears, and an eternity’s worth of sobs spill out all at once. She collapses, and he has no choice but to catch her before she hits the gravel again, his arms warm and dry and—and safe.
She had long forgotten what it feels like to be safe.
She barely hears the other voice cursing behind them, and she’s lost to her pain, to her grief, and to his warm presence, so she nearly misses him saying:
“Dammit, it’s that girl. The missing girl. Ella Santos.”
Laine, present day
Normal is something you can fake really well, if you try hard enough. You have to start by convincing yourself, and everyone else will follow, like sheep over a cliff. You act as normal as possible; you go through the motions. That veneer of normalcy may be tissue-paper thin, but you’ll soon find out that no one is in any hurry to scratch the surface, let alone test it for weak spots. You can go through your entire life like this, from one menial action to the next, never breaking the pattern, and no one will be the wiser. At least, that’s what I’m counting on.
The day I see Olivia Shaw for the first time, I know it’s not going to last much longer.
Usually, I get to the grocery store at seven and leave at two, either to go for a run or to nap until my shift starts at my second job. At least two runs a week, usually three, and when I don’t go between shifts, I go in the morning, getting up early. When I told this to another cashier, she said she wished she had my discipline, and I nodded along because what are you supposed to say to that? Since then, I try not to talk to people much about anything I do outside of work. I’ve had this job for almost six months now, which is a long time for me, and soon it’ll become strange that I don’t socialize.
That girl isn’t here today. I haven’t seen her in a while; maybe the manager changed her shift, maybe she got fired—I don’t know. The manager is Charlene, and she looks like a Charlene, orthopedic shoes and perm and eternal frosty lipstick in a shade that should have been discontinued back in 1989. I suppose she thinks of herself as some sort of mother hen figure, but I noticed the look she gave me when I came in fifteen minutes late. The air outside is like breathing a swimming pool, and my hair is frizzing, stubbornly curling despite being racked with hot tools only an hour ago. I’m still cold and clammy even though I changed into my uniform, the purple shirt with the store logo over my right boob, my name printed underneath: LAINEY M., the M. because I’m not the only Lainey here; the chubby girl who had so innocently tried to be my friend was Lainey R. Still is, I guess, if maybe not at this store. That was her icebreaker: Oh look, we have the same name—what are the odds? I didn’t tell her no one calls me Lainey, no one important anyway.
It doesn’t matter. I didn’t even choose the name for myself. They picked it at random at the hospital, some soap opera heroine’s first name and a generic surname to go with it. As common and unremarkable as possible. Hiding me in plain sight—that was the rationale.
And it worked, the hiding thing, at least until today. Today, Charlene the manager pushes a slim stack of the usual flyers for me to put up beside the double glass doors of the entrance and exit. I’m still a little slow, and I take them, automatically, forgetting that it’s not Sunday and I just did that, the specials for the week: ground beef, three ninety-nine a pound; condensed cream of tomato, three for four dollars. Only when my gaze slips down do I see what they are, and my brain grinds to a halt.
It’s nothing unusual. Nothing that hasn’t happened before, twice, in the time I’ve worked in this store. One was the six-year-old boy who was found a week later, whose dad skipped town in defiance of shared guardianship, the other the elderly woman who disappeared in the neighborhood and was feared to have killed herself. No one knows what happened to her, least of all me, except one day I came into work and the poster was gone, replaced by more of the weekly specials, by cantaloupes and broccoli and store-brand chips. For all I know, she did kill herself. But she’s not the kind of missing person who interests me.
But today, I look down at the stack of papers in my hands and I see her, Olivia Shaw, age ten.
It’s a typical Seattle PD missing-person poster, with the neat columns of stats underneath. The original picture must have been high quality, full color, but the printer was running out of ink, so the colors bleed into one another like one of those Polaroid photos.
Olivia Shaw has been missing since last Tuesday. She was last seen outside the entrance of her elementary school in Hunts Point wearing a white spring jacket and pink boots. My brain registers the information on autopilot, searing every word into my memory, and in the meantime, a part of me is distantly, methodically, checking off the items one by one. Like pieces of a kaleidoscope, they all click together.
If you have any knowledge of Olivia Shaw’s whereabouts, or any relevant information, please contact…
Images surface in my mind moments before dissolving into black dust, like a dream I’m trying to remember. I spent a long time in the last ten years peering into the faces of girls on missing-person posters, wondering which one replaced me in the basement. But they were never quite the right age, the right look, the right circumstances. Until Olivia Shaw, age ten, missing for one week tomorrow.
From my many sleepless nights of research, I know that most kidnapping victims are dead within forty-eight hours.
You were lucky, Ella.
I force myself to look at the face in the photo, into her slightly smudged features, and I can’t bring myself to move.
Olivia Shaw could be my mirror image, rewound to thirteen years ago. She has a wild halo of dark curls around her head—like mine, when I don’t torture them into submission with a hot iron. Dark skin, like mine. Her eyes—I can’t distinguish the color from the blurry pixels of the poster, but the description says they’re gray.
The sound of my name, my other, new name, takes a while to reach me inside my bubble. It’s my boss. It feels like my spine has turned to brittle stone, and my neck might snap if I turn my head too fast. I register confusion on her face.
“The tape,” she says, blinking her sparse, mascara-clotted eyelashes.
The tape? Right. The tape. Without realizing I’m doing it, I scratch the inside of my wrist under my sleeve. Charlene holds out the clear Scotch tape, her expression shifting closer and closer to annoyance. It takes five steps to cross the distance between us so I can reach out and take the tape from her hand. Doing this, my sleeve rides up and my wrist bone pops out of the fitted cuff. Her eyes flicker to it for just a fraction of a second, the same way people sneak a glimpse of disfigured faces: staring without staring, looking away with such intensity you wish they’d just glare outright, get their fix of the morbid, and get it over with. I can’t wear fingerless gloves here; “accessories” aren’t allowed by the dress code. So I’ve developed a habit of always tugging my sleeves down, a tic that persists outside of this place too.
Probably not the worst habit to have, all things considered.
The sound of tape peeling off the roll raises the hairs on my arms, and I hold the poster in place as I tape its corners to the glass outside the entrance, taking too much care to make sure it’s perfectly straight. As if that will help her. I know it’s all an excuse for me to reread the text, examine the photo, burn it all into my retinas forever and ever and ever. To add Olivia Shaw to my ever-expanding mental collection of the disappeared. Except a part of me already knows one of these things isn’t like the others.
The automatic doors of the entrance hiss open as I pass through, my muscles humming with tension. “Charlene,” I hear myself say, “I’m going to go for a smoke.”
She says something about opening the store in five minutes, but I won’t take longer than that. I’m already on my way out, patting down my pockets before the door has a chance to slide aside and let me out, wondering what I did with my emergency pack of smokes. It might be in the pocket of my jacket, which is in the back of the store, stuffed in the shoe box–sized locker in the employees’ lounge. Too bad. I don’t think a cigarette will do it for me right now anyway. Instead, I take my phone out of my pocket, stare at the screen until it blurs, key in the code and screw it up three times until it unlocks. Open the browser and start feverishly typing in the search window.
Another thing I know from my late-night Internet forays: kidnappers, rapists, serial killers—they don’t just stop one day. They are stopped. Whoever stole me—stole Ella—was never found. But in the last ten years, there hasn’t been another girl.
And now there is.
In the books and movies, the broken girl always dies at the end. Sometimes she’s allowed one final heroic act, one last snarky line before she goes out. Maybe she sacrifices herself to save the real hero, or maybe her death is just a meaningless accident, an afterthought. But she always dies, because she’s too tarnished to live.
Every time I see her die, I’m jealous. That should have been me, a long time ago.
It would have been better for everybody if I had just died, like they presumed I had—for years before I was found. Especially for me, the nameless, voiceless creature that was born out of Ella Santos’s remains, an abomination. A living dead girl.
They had to give this voiceless creature, this Frankenstein’s monster covered in scars and stitches, a new name at random because the creature couldn’t speak to pick one for herself. The most I ever had the wherewithal to do was drop that last y from Lainey, turning it into Laine, one syllable. Sounds like something you’d find on a highway.
I will probably never know what exactly glitched in my kidnapper’s mind that made him decide to take a risk, to allow me to live. I’ve never given up wondering, though. And I never could quite let go of the suspicion that some nameless force in the universe was saving me for something even worse.
Now, as my sneakers rhythmically hit the pavement, the shock of impact thudding in my bone marrow, I can’t help but wonder if this is it.
I was spared so I could do something, help the next one. And a darker thought: I was spared so that I could watch it all happen again, unable to do anything about it.
I focus on the burning in my lungs, the steady fire kindling in my leg muscles, but it’s not enough to keep my thoughts from drifting to the thing burning in my pocket, folded up next to my phone in half, then fourths, then eighths, until the layers of paper refused to bend. Charlene gave me four posters to put up, but only three are still there, next to the flashy yellow flyers advertising a discount on whole chickens. Charlene is of an exacting nature, just like everything about her suggests, and she will probably notice, but hopefully, she won’t think it’s me. She’ll think one of the shoppers decided to snatch it off the wall and keep it for some unknown reason.
I catch myself with my hand in my pocket like a thief, when it’s too late. The thick folded edge of the poster brushes the back of my hand, and to distract myself, I take out my phone instead and check the screen. Nobody ever calls me, and I’m not on any social media, unlike pretty much everyone my age. No one expressly told me to stay off it—it’s just an ingrained instinct too strong to go against: the instinct to hide.
The first thing I see is the missed call, followed by the new voice mail alert. How did I not hear it? My heart lurches, and it has nothing to do with the exertion wringing my smoker’s lungs. Another bit of ingrained knowledge: missed calls, and especially voice mails, are never good news. Fighting the tremor in my hands, I dial my voice mail and groan inwardly as the phone recites the date and time with agonizing slowness. A hiss, a snap of static, and then a familiar voice floods into my ear, heavy with its nasal accent, and a sweet balm of relief spills in my chest even though my heart hasn’t gotten the memo yet and keeps hammering. It’s my coworker from my second job. I didn’t recognize the number because she’s calling from the one ancient pay phone at work, the one they keep there for God only knows what reason. I’m so overcome with that feeling of having gotten away with something that I forget to even get mad about what she’s asking. They need me to come in early, because so-and-so didn’t show up. I hang up without waiting for the message to play to the end.
It means no time to take a nap beforehand, which is just as well because it’s not like I’ll be able to sleep now. But I had other plans for these two hours, plans that will have to wait until the end of the night—which, right now, might as well be in a hundred years. Ever since I saw Olivia Shaw looking at me from that poster, time shifted. It’s no longer an ephemeral thing that trickles away while I look on with indifference. It feels voluntary, as if I forgot how to breathe and have to consciously pull and push every gulp of oxygen into my lungs if I don’t want to suffocate.
Up in my apartment, I lock the door behind me and slide on the chain even though I’ll be out again in under an hour, which leaves me just enough time to get ready. This is why I need the second job, sacrificing sleep and sanity, because I need this place. Living with roommates didn’t work out so great—surprise, surprise—and it’s impossible to get an apartment in this city on a single cashier’s pay. Even a shitty apartment like this one, on the worst street in the worst neighborhood. And I don’t just have to pay rent. I’m a twenty-three-year-old female who needs makeup and clothes and sometimes even jewelry, though my options are somewhat restricted here.
And other things.
I didn’t do such a bad job making this place homey. It may be three hundred square feet, but every inch is mine. I have furniture from Goodwill and the great free market that is the curb on moving day: a narrow desk so old it verges on antique and a chair that almost matches it. The apartment has a built-in counter too small to eat on, so the desk doubles as a dining table. I have a cute little nightstand from IKEA. Well, not from IKEA but I think it’s IKEA. Someone tossed it out because a corner is chipped, exposing the cheap plywood underneath. I don’t have a bed frame but I have a decent mattress on the floor—the bed frame is going to be my next big splurge. Depending on how I’ll make it through the next hours-days-weeks. Whether or not I can keep reminding myself to breathe at reliable intervals.
I’m sweaty and consider jumping in the shower but reject the idea. I don’t feel like being naked right now. So I run a towel under the tap and rub it in my armpits and across my chest, under my grocery-store sweatshirt. The water hardly makes the cloth less scratchy, and I feel like someone scrubbed me down with steel wool. When I pull the sweatshirt over my head, I realize my chest is covered with little splotches that will hopefully fade by the time I get to work.
The dress code at my second job is fairly simple, no uniforms—they either can’t afford them or just don’t care. You can wear what you want, but whatever it is it has to be white. The girls complain about the color, so unforgiving of spills and nearly transparent under black lights, but I think it adds an illusion of curves to my streamlined body, which helps with the tips. My two identical work dresses are cheap polyester, twenty dollars after the discount at one of the fast-fashion chains, but they have an appealing plunging neckline and the skirt hits midthigh.
Next, boots, knee-high with thick heels and blunt toes that boost my height by a couple of inches but are still comfortable enough, considering I have to be on my feet all night. I own lots of boots of all shapes, forms, and colors—boots are kind of my thing, although not entirely by choice. The other alternative is high-top sneakers, and I hate those. I never wear stiletto heels, and no sandals either, even in summer. Or ballet flats or those trendy platform Mary Janes with the delicate ankle strap.
Girls with scar rings around their ankles don’t have many options. Some asshole I made the mistake of hooking up with still tells everyone I fuck with my boots on.
On my arms, fingerless gloves that go up to the elbow, and on top of that, three bracelets on each arm. Foundation, concealer under my eyes, eyebrow pencil, a touch of highlighter on my brow bones and in the Cupid’s bow of my top lip, a beauty routine out of a women’s magazine. I have a plain face without makeup, except for my big, brown eyes that some love-struck fool in another life might have called soulful, and I know how to play them up. I line my eyes with heavy strokes of dark-blue kohl, a little silver in the inner corners. Gobs of gloss on my lips, darkening their natural color to that of dried blood. Lastly, I pump the mascara brush in the scuffed tube that I really need to replace, if I can spare the ten bucks. The effect is clumpy, but I doubt anyone will notice in the dark.
Almost ready. I check my phone; I have just enough time, and the traffic usually goes the other way at this hour. The grocery-store sweatshirt is still where I left it on the bathroom floor, a puddle of cheery purple-pink, and I dive after it to get my keys and wallet out of the pocket only for the poster to fall out, landing at my feet.
My heartbeat thuds dully in the back of my throat as I retrieve it, unfold it, and smooth it out on the kitchen counter. With my fingertip, I trace the smooth, round outline of her face, the one ringlet of curls that springs off to the side, escaping from the elastic of her ponytail.
If you have any knowledge of Olivia Shaw’s whereabouts, or any relevant information, please contact…
I should call the number, the thought crosses my mind. I even begin to reach for my phone. Call the number and say what? Everything’s been said many years ago, and much good it did to anyone.
Before the temptation can become too strong, I grab the poster off the counter and race across the room to my bed by the window. Careful not to look at it, I lift up the mattress and slide the poster underneath, on top of the pile of printouts, folded yellowed newspaper pages, and other posters, weathered by time and faded by rain, that I collected all over the city over the years. Olivia Shaw is part of my collection now. As long as I can keep her there, maybe she’ll stay out of my thoughts. Maybe her face won’t flash in front of my eyes every time I blink, like it’s been tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.
Enough. I’m running late. I put my wallet and my phone into the pocket of my pleather jacket then remember something and open the drawer of my nightstand. Grab the folding knife that sits there, under a pile of year-old tabloid magazines with frayed covers. Put it in my pocket, next to the phone and wallet.
Every single night I leave my apartment, I secretly hope I’ll need it. But I never do.
The night shift is already starting by the time I get to the Silver Bullet Gentlemen’s Club. A few of the day girls shuffle past me, sweatpants tucked into UGG knockoffs, duffels slung over shoulders. The other barmaid, an Eastern European former stripper who goes by Chloe but whose real name is Natalia-something, is already behind the bar, waving to me, and by the somewhat desperate smile that flashes yellow under black lights, I know I’m in trouble with the boss.
Natalia is as close as I have to a friend. We’ve gone out after work a couple of times, and I’ve been to her place once or twice—it’s nicer than you’d expect, a two-bedroom house she’s renting on the outskirts of town. Or maybe she owns it, something to show for her time in the Lucite heels—and it must be a long time, even though I never asked her outright. Her face is smooth as an egg, helped by makeup plus injectables in her lips and already prominent cheekbones, her hair bleached till it glows and stuffed full of keratin extensions, so it’s thicker than mine. But that difference of a decade or two is there between us, intangible but present, like the heavy scent of her department-store perfume. She always tells me I’d do much better as a stripper, that I’m wasting my good years breaking my back at a cash register and behind a bar when I should be on the other side of it, making hundreds. I considered it. Flexible schedule, good money, and I could just wear those dominatrix boots to cover my ankle scars, plus some arm bands—like the girls with the drug problems, the kind that require needles. And the belly scar, well, there’s much worse here, and I could cover it with makeup if I wanted to. Natalia’s own C-section scar is almost as bad, and it’s another thing I never brought up—don’t ask, don’t tell.
- "Every good thriller has a shocking plot twist. Girl Last Seen has many. Author Nina Laurin's eerie novel will stay with you for days, months, even years to come."—HelloGiggles.com
- GIRL LAST SEEN by Nina Laurin is a chilling suspense about two missing girls whose stories intertwine - perfect for Paula Hawkins fans."—EliteDaily.com
- "A well-written and compelling novel that offers more than suspense; it offers a deeper understanding of how sexual assault can leave its victims broken. Ms. Laurin is to be congratulated for her achievement."—NYJournalofBooks.com
- "4 Stars! This debut novel is a gritty thriller with dark twists you won't see coming. The heart breaking, heart-racing journey...will keep you guessing to the nail-biting end."—TheSuspenseIsThrillingMe.com
- "Debut novelist Nina Laurin has created a memorable character in complicated, flawed and endearing Laine Moreno. From the very first page, GIRL LAST SEEN jettisons the reader into the life of a crime victim trying to outrun her past. Fast-paced and hard-edged, it is a heart-stopping thriller that had me guessing to the very end."—Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and Not a Sound
- "Girl Last Seen gripped me from start to finish. Lainey Moreno is a riveting heroine, a kidnapping survivor who will only escape her demons if she faces her greatest fears, and Nina Laurin brings her vividly to life. Psychological suspense doesn't come much grittier or more packed with satisfying twists and turns."—Meg Gardiner, Edgar Award-winning author of Unsub
- "GIRL LAST SEEN hooked me so quickly I might have whiplash. This is a sharp, twisting, intense thriller, the heartbreaking and fast-paced story of a woman who bears the scars of a trip to hell and back but who refuses to be defeated. Don't miss this smashing debut!"—David Bell, bestselling author of Bring Her Home
- "Laurin creates a compelling, vulnerable central character."—Publisher's Weekly
- On Sale
- Jun 20, 2017
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing